“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” – Unknown
Imagine a friend who woke you up each morning with a reminder that you aren’t good enough, that you have to get off your lazy ass, that you don’t measure up to others that are more successful in your field. One that reflects on a recent failure by saying, “you sure messed that one up!” This friend kicks at you when you are down and isn’t satisfied when you are doing well. That is of course, unless the message from this friend is, “oh, so you are a real big shot now! Too big for your britches, I think!” Does this sound like a friend? I wouldn’t say so. Most likely, we’d avoid contact with such a friend whenever possible. For better or worse, many of us have such a voice in our own head. The inner critic that has a comment for everything. Some treat this voice as a friend from the perspective of motivation or inspiration. Others deny it only to have it appear at the worst possible time.
The inner critic seems to me to be the storage container for our shame. My experience is that the critic isn’t talking about guilt and embarrassment, which are generally characterized by a sense that our words or actions left something to be desired. Instead, the critic feeds on shame and humiliation – a sense not that you did something bad but that you are bad. The critic doesn’t say, “That project failed” our even “you failed”, it says, “you are a failure.”
Author Brene Brown defines shame as “the fear of disconnection, an intensely painful feeling of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love & belonging.” This shame has a tendency to keep our world small – avoiding risk and failure while at the same time focusing on ourselves at the expense of others. All in an attempt to appease that critical voice. To push through it or be a perfectionist in order to silence it.
But there can be many voices. And one of the most important voices of self-talk is the voice of self-compassion. The message it carries is that you are worthy of care and compassion regardless of the outcome of your words and actions. It doesn’t condone bad behavior but recognizes your humanity, your right to make mistakes and also your ability to learn from these mistakes.
I’ve found several approaches helpful when working with my own inner critic. Feel free to try them out for yourself. I include a guided meditation in my most recent podcast.
- Cultivate a voice of reason
Trying to eliminate your inner critic just won’t work. But by cultivating another voice, a voice of compassion and unconditional love, you offer a counterpoint. In fact, including this voice can literally short-circuit the ruminative thinking that the inner critic generates. Silently say a phrase like “Darling, I’m here for you” or “This too” whenever you hear this voice to create the mindful pause you need to respond thoughtfully instead of treating these critical words as true.
- Offer the tools of self-compassion
Author Kristin Neff has abundant tools for working with your self critic including her Self-Compassion Break. Neff encourages perspective taking as a way to connect with your shared human experience and cultivate empathy. At the same time, these practices can help you treat yourself better. Try downloading my Compassionate Reflection or Neff’s How would you treat a friend exercise.
- Approach the inner critic with curiosity, honor it
Try my “Tea with with a difficult emotion” guided practice which invites your fears, worries and doubts to join you in exploration. What is your inner critic trying to tell you? Is there an unmet need that it is trying to bring to the surface? Another approach I’ve found helpful is Byron Katie’s “4 questions”:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know its true?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe it?
- Who would you be without this thought?
- Treat it like a bully
Bullies feed on reactions. Say hello to it but don’t put it in charge. Surround yourself with friends and even a community that will remind you of the voice of compassion instead of the voice of criticism.
The inner critic is a sneaky little devil. So more than one approach is critical. Hopefully some of these resonate for you!
This is the second half of a two part series. You can find part one here: The Art of Self-Compassion, a personal reflection. You can also listen to the accompanying podcast episode on iTunes, Stitcher, PlayerFM or Soundcloud.
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